Rice pudding is loved throughout this country. But it's also loved in France, from Provence to Burgundy to Normandy. Home cooks use a time-honored technique that involves baking the rice with milk and butter for three hours. A classic French restaurant formula does it in two: The rice is cooked in milk for an hour, egg yolks are added and whipped egg whites are folded in, and the mixture is baked in a caramel-coated gratin dish for another hour.
As much as we love this soothing sweet in America, many of us are just too busy to make it because of the time it requires.
In my home, rice pudding has always been our ultimate comfort food. Two or three hours seems a long time to wait for comfort, so I decided to devise a quick, low-fat way to prepare it. My first goal was to make rice pudding in less than 30 minutes.
I took advantage of a tip I learned in Paris from a professional chef. He boiled the rice for three minutes in water before cooking it in milk, thus shortening its cooking time considerably. I took this idea further by blanching the rice in water a few minutes longer until it was half cooked and then simmering it in milk. The total cooking time was less than 25 minutes.
My next challenge was to prepare a delicious rice pudding without any fat. To achieve a creamy consistency, I used Arborio rice, the short-grained type preferred for risotto. Even when I made the pudding with nonfat milk and no butter, cream or eggs, Arborio produced a luscious result.
To flavor my rice puddings, I like to add a vanilla bean or a cinnamon stick to the simmering milk, or to stir vanilla or grated orange or lemon rind into the cooked pudding. When I lived in France, I used to add candied fruit, but now I prefer dried fruit--golden or dark raisins, or dried cherries, blueberries or cranberries. Adding the fruit to the still-hot rice mixture makes it plump and tender.
A traditional French presentation is to layer rice pudding on a platter and decorate it with poached fruit. Fresh fruit or berry sauce also make perfect toppings. Still, as a snack or dessert, the simplest way of serving rice pudding is perhaps the most appealing--sprinkling it with cinnamon.
Rice pudding is convenient to make because most of us have the ingredients on hand. Be sure to use a heavy saucepan and to stir the rice often as it cooks in the milk to keep it from scorching. Choose a large saucepan so the milk will not boil over.
FAT-FREE RICE PUDDING
6 cups water
3/4 cup rice, preferably Arborio or other short-grain rice
3 cups nonfat milk
4 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup raisins or dried cherries
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Ground cinnamon, optional
Bring 6 cups water to boil in heavy, large saucepan. Add rice and boil, uncovered, 7 minutes. Drain well.
Bring milk to boil in same saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Add rice and salt. Cook, uncovered, over medium-low heat, stirring often, until rice is very soft and absorbs most of milk, about 15 minutes. Rice should look creamy, not soupy and not dry.
When rice is cooked, stir in sugar. Cook and stir 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in raisins and vanilla. Serve warm. Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste. Makes 4 servings.
This isn't a low-fat dessert, but the creamy rice is delicious, sweetened and flavored with citrus zests and vanilla then topped with strawberries and served with strawberry sauce. Peaches, apricots or any tender fruit in season can be substituted for the berries.
FRENCH RICE PUDDING WITH STRAWBERRIES
1 quart water
1/2 cup rice, preferably arborio or other short-grain rice
2 1/4 cups milk
1/4 cup sugar
Grated zest 1 lemon
Grated zest 1 orange
3 tablespoons chopped candied fruit or golden raisins, optional
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups whole strawberries
Fresh Strawberry Sauce, optional
Bring water to boil in heavy, large saucepan. Add rice and boil 7 minutes. Drain well.
Bring milk to boil in same saucepan. Add rice and salt. Cook, uncovered, over medium-low heat, stirring often, until rice is very soft and absorbs milk, about 15 minutes. If rice absorbs milk before becoming soft, gradually add several more tablespoons milk and continue to cook.
When rice is cooked, stir in sugar and grated lemon and orange zests. Cook and stir over low heat 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in candied fruit, vanilla and butter.
Spread mixture in round mound about 1/2-inch high on round platter. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour or until ready to serve. To serve, arrange strawberries on rice. Serve Fresh Strawberry Sauce separately. Makes 4 servings.
This bright-red sauce is a good complement for either of the rice puddings above.
Fresh Strawberry Sauce
3 cups strawberries, hulled
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice, or to taste
Puree strawberries with sugar in food processor or blender until smooth. Add lemon juice. Adjust sugar to taste. Makes about 1 1/2 cups or about 4 servings.